In a West End awash with Broadway musicals – itself, hardly going through a golden age – the arrival of a British original is to be lauded, and Cameron Mackintosh can always be relied upon to try something different (I still have fond memories his frankly bonkers St Trinians version of ‘Moby Dick’).
I’ve always had a soft spot for dark British shows like ‘Spend, Spend, Spend’, ‘Our House’ and ‘The Utter Glory Of Morrisey hall’. Whether or not the West End tourist trade can support something at this level of outright peculiarity anymore is another matter entirely. The much-loved Alan Bennett-scripted black comedy is a masterpiece of understated Northern wit, filled with tiny moments of horror, none so perfect as the sight of Michael Palin clipping a toenail that pings off a vase while a girl discordantly plays the piano.
Austerity Britain, and the preparations for the Royal Wedding have inspired corrupt town councillors to hide an unlicensed pig for the forthcoming town banquet. Into this hotbed of ration-book corruption steps mild Gilbert Chilvers (League of Gentlemen’s Reece Shearsmith), his ambitious wife, Joyce (played in the film by Maggie Smith, here beautifully rendered by Sarah Lancashire) and her mother, who fears she’ll be put away when she tells neighbours she’s seen a pig in the house. Gilbert and Joyce have kidnapped the porcine Betty Blue-Eyes in order to hold snobbish Dr Swaby to ransom, for he is blocking Gilbert’s attempts to move his chiropody practice onto the town’s parade.
Joyce has watched helplessly as the townsfolk have fallen prey to black market dealing, and pushes Gilbert, Lady Macbeth-like, into action. ‘It’s not about steak, it’s about status,’ she explains, handing him a carving knife, but Meat Inspector Wormold, played by Adrian Scarborough, sets out on their trail…
The original script has been serviceably filleted, and the songs from George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, who provided the best moments in ‘Mary Poppins’, are often laugh-out-loud funny, but I fear for the show’s commercial prospects in a market where hen nights queue for clapalong Patrick Swayze adaptations.
As a low-key Bennett comedy, ‘A Private Function’ is an absolute gem, but the film went unseen in America. As a sizeably budgeted musical I wish it well – after all, ‘Billy Elliot’ made the jump. But when was the last time you heard a song about chiropody instruments, or a quartet sung in a public urinal? And there aren’t too many musical comedies that show the attempted slaughter of a pig onstage, or which feature animal farts in the form of clouds of green smoke. One jaw-dropping number arrives early on when the meat inspector sings of his love of painting while daubing hog corpses with green paint. Another sees the Queen and Prince Philip popping in for a cuppa.
I missed the gradual thawing of Wormold as he discovers love, but it’s made up for by the sweet addition of a flashback to Gilbert and Joyce meeting at a wartime dancehall.
All in all it’s a charming evening, bleakly funny and filled with neat ideas, with a particular visual standout being Betty the animatronic pig, but the American tourists behind me were puzzled and horrified. But cultural differences are for once pointed up instead of hidden, and let’s hope that originality and wit still count for something in an increasingly bland world.